The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

mccullers_heart.jpgIn 1940, amidst the remnants of the Great Depression and the early years of World War II, twenty-three year old Carson McCullers published her debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The novel, which she had been working on while studying creative writing as a night student at Columbia and NYU, was a tremendous success upon publication, both critically and commercially.

More than fifty years later, this book was still so highly regarded as to rank 17th on Modern Library's controversial List of Best 20th-Century Novels. This achievement is particularly notable in light of the criticism the list received for having just 8 female authors (strangely, McCullers' novel was left off the list published by Radcliffe students in response). It was also listed in Time Magazine's 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Set in a small city in the Deep South, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter tells the story of five individuals, each burdened with a sense of isolation and yearning to be able to express themselves and be understood. There is Biff Brannon, the owner of a local cafe; Jake Blount, an alcoholic Communist who has wondered into town; Dr. Benedict Copeland, an African-American doctor yearning to better his people's fate; Mick Kelly, a teenage girl stumbling through puberty; and John Singer, a deaf-mute whose silence allows the other four (and the rest of the town) to project their needs and hopes onto him:

One by one they would come to Singer's room to spend the evening with him. The mute was always thoughtful and composed. His many-tinted gentle eyes were grave as a sorcerer's. Mick Kelly and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would come and talk in the silent room--for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that.

The trouble is that Singer is no better off. Like them he is lost and lonely. Like them he is unable to express himself, unable to be understood. Like them he has projected his need for human connection to a deaf-mute, in this case his friend Antonapolous. The opening chapter depicts the companionship of these two men, which lasted ten years before Antonapolous starts to misbehave and his cousin commits him to an asylum. Singer is never the same, and his despair is no different from the four who sought solace in him:

He saw Antonapoulos sitting in a large chair before him. He sat tranquil and unmoving. His mad face was inscrutable. His mouth was wise and smiling. And his eyes were profound. He watched the things that were said to him. And in his wisdom he understood.

This was the Antonapoulos who now was always in his thoughts. This was the friend to whom he wanted to tell things that had come about. For something had happened in this year. He had been left in an alien land. Alone. He had opened his eyes and around him there was much he could not understand. He was bewildered.

One of McCullers' noted achievements in this book is her vivid, sympathetic portrayal of the African-American community and their continuing struggle just to survive, let alone overcome, the weight of history's oppression. Dr. Copeland is a successful professional, but he has failed in his personal life. His anger at his people's treatment leaves no tolerance for African-Americans who fail to share his ambitions to rise up and build a new world. He drove away his wife and children, and despite the intervening years, his frustrated rage has no end:

He felt the fire in him and he could not be still. He wanted to sit up and speak in a loud voice--yet when he tried to raise himself he could not find the strength. The words in his heart grew big and they would not be silent. But the old man had ceased to listen and there was no one to hear him.

The lonely struggle to connect portrayed in this book is universal, as McCullers demonstrates with her diverse cast. But the universality of this striving is apparent only to the reader, as the characters prove unable to recognize that each one is sharing the same struggle. When they coincidentally find themselves all arriving at Singer's room at the same time, awkward silence, rather than awed recognition, fills the air:

Always each of them had so much to say. Yet now that they were together they were silent. When they came in he had expected an outburst of some kind. In a vague way he had expected this to be the end of something. But in the room there was only a feeling of strain. His hand worked nervously as though they were pulling things unseen from the air and binding them together.

As a result, this is rather relentlessly bleak book, befitting the dark times in which it was published. Near the end of the last chapter, one of the character's experiences an epiphany that serves as the pearl of hope for the entire book: "a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who--one word--love." But it is a mere glimpse, which quickly fades.